It’s Story Time, Boys And Girls!

April 28, 2008

In chatting with Ten Ton Hammer about whatever inane thoughts were in my noggin about WAR, RadarX asked me an interesting question about the necessity of lore in Warhammer Online. It got me thinking, and thus I found myself donning my favorite earflap cap, chomping down on my bubble pipe, and sitting in my favorite high-backed recliner in front of a roaring fire.

I only wish I’d put out that fire, as I had no fireplace at the time. But I digress.

I feel passionate about storytelling in games that I play for much the same reason I watch good TV or read gripping novels: I want to be told a tale that keeps me guessing, keeps me interested, and keeps me involved until I’ve squeezed the last drop of narrative into my brain. A lot of people have bagged on the old adventure gaming genre, seeing it as hardly anything more than overly difficult puzzles and some light stealth elements, but I knew better. I was “earning” more chunks of a good story by getting involved with the events happening on screen. While other people complain about long CGI cutscenes in RPGs, I settle back into my couch with a happy smile and a mind ready to drink in more chunks of the account.

Some of the best stories I’ve ever been told have been through single-player RPGs — Fallout, Baldur’s Gate 2, Planescape Torment, Knights of the Old Republic — and the sheer effort and time it took to get the full story out of the software made me feel as though I had a true investment beyond what most people put into being a listener or reader. Ask any gamer who, while playing Final Fantasy 7, was really upset that they couldn’t save Ariel from certain death, and you might start to understand that gamers expect to be intimately involved with the stories being told to the point where they can try to affect and change the events unfolding. It’s storytelling on a whole new level.

And I’m here to ask: why the HECK is this missing from MMOs?

It doesn’t make sense, when you first think about it. Huge, sweeping online role-playing games should be the epitome of storytelling: you create and develop an ongoing character over the course of months and years, seeing them grow and adventure through a rich landscape. Each world is filled with “lore” — backstory unique to that universe’s setting — just ripe for the plucking.

And still so very little of what you do affects a story in any meaningful way. Your character grows in levels, skills and gear, yet it’s still very much the same exact character you created, as is the world you’ve been exploring. It’s a stasis bubble, freezing the story in one moment in time, with only slight illusions on the part of both game devs and your own mind (which is called on to fill in the missing narrative development) to keep things from getting too weird.

If you recall back to your high school English class, stories contain the following — so try to picture how these fit in with an MMO: complex characters, a key conflict, a point of view, dialogue, descriptions, rising action, a climactic moment, falling action and a resolution.

As much as I love MMOs and the vast possibilities they present, I’m just not being told good stories, nor am I being involved in the narrative to the point I’d like. I challenge their creators to look at the dearth of really good story elements in their games (no matter how much they claim is present) by taking a look at how single-player RPGs and the multi-player ones approach story:

1. Heroes: at the center vs. at the fringe

One of the hardest obstacles any MMO faces is trying to pass off a game world where everyone is a “hero on the fringe” of a crowd of thousands of other heroes, and still make them feel special and unique. Single-player RPGs have no problem with this. You’re the only person playing the game, so the story really and truly revolves around you. Things don’t happen until you show up, and you have an epic narrative line mapped out for you from humble beginning to glorious end.

There’s no end of an MMO, of course, and while slight-of-hand tricks are employed to make a player feel like they’re the most important sun-revolves-around-them person in the game, it just ain’t so, Joe. MMOs have to tell an epic, heroic tale about each and every single person who boots up the game, and do so in a way that doesn’t hijack the experience from the other singularly egocentric warriors. It’s an impossible task, I think.

2. Quests: dynamic vs. history textbook boring

Some day, some glorious day, we’ll arrive at a point where all RPGs will have forever cast off the ugliest, clunkiest story device of them all: the quest box. You know, click on a guy, a wall of text hits you, and you just skim it to see if you have to do a FedEx quest, a bug hunt, an (shudder) escort, or a game of “search for the glowy pixels”. Some story writer in a sleazy hotel room somewhere cries themselves to sleep, because you don’t care to appreciate, over and over, a different coat of paint on the exact same objects.

Compare this to a questing experience that is dynamic: you’re walking down a path, and a girl stumbles from a bush, chased by six burly men wielding spatulas. Without a chunk of text, you’re plunged into a story — do you save the girl (and perhaps find out that she’s an evil monster that’s being hunted down by good-intentioned but poorly-armed villagers) or join the men to make an even seven brute squad (and perhaps passing a hidden initiation to join the brute squad in the future)? What if you save the girl, she kisses you and you pass out from lip gloss poison, only to awake in a grimy dungeon from which there is only a slim chance of escape?

Is a story being told here? Yup. A quest given? Sure. Are there more than one objectives and multiple decisions? Uh huh. So other than this being “harder” than typing up three paragraphs about why Snoutz wants you to fetch him his breakfast from a mulberry bush are we not seeing more of this in games?

3. Relationships: ignorance vs. identity

You develop fascinating relationships with online players in MMOs, of course, but why aren’t we also building relationships with the NPCs (non-player characters) as well? Millions of single-player RPG gamers want to know that answer.

Without recognition and future interaction with characters, my avatar might as well be a ghost for all the impact it seems to do for the people in a game world. I might save them one day only to find them in peril the next. I might reunite them with a long-lost love only to come back a week later and be greeted with a one-line piece of text that effectively says “I HAZ NO MORE QUESTS FOR YOUSE. BUG OFF.”

What I love in a single-player RPG is that a character I might save in chapter one becomes a vital friend and trusted ally by chapter four. My characters have fallen in love with NPCs who have reciprocated, in a fashion. I am defined in game by how the game sees me in return, and this makes a bigger difference than you might imagine.

MMO’s have taken baby steps in getting NPCs to recognize you and develop longer-term relationships. Baby steps, tho. City of Heroes and World of Warcraft both have NPCs that will shout out greetings to your character, or be talking about you as you pass them. Once in a while you might accomplish a quest so great that that NPC will change its attitude or suddenly offer you new quests. Reputation systems reinforce the concept of you repeatedly helping a group of NPCs to gain rewards and recognition down the road. Yet all this isn’t enough. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I saved a teenage boy from a nasty bear while I was level 7, and then that same boy — now grow’d up into a man — comes to my aid when I’m battling Mecha-Bear at level 43?

We have the capacity to care for NPCs, game devs. Give us a reason to care.

4. Cut Scenes: non-existent vs. involving

I don’t get to praise Guild Wars a lot, although it’s a solid game, but its use of in-game cut scenes that actually feature your characters is one of the best story-telling devices I’ve seen in MMOs, ever. Little slices of a movie, featuring you, can only help to immerse you into the events unfolding. They reinforce the notion of you as a hero at the center, instead of a hero floundering to figure out how the mission goes. Why aren’t more games doing this sort of thing?

5. Aftermath: permanent effects vs. the reset button

We’re all pretty familiar with this scenario: you and your buddies go ahead and save the world from certain doom (again), battling a fierce foe to its doom, and saving a dying nation from extinction… only to have an invisible hand come down and go “RESET!” so that everything goes alllll the way back to the beginning — a la Groundhog’s Day the movie — and the only thing that changes is the loot you swiped from the demon’s pockets.

The problem here, for MMO devs, is that any permanent (or long-lasting) effect on the game world by one player impacts other players, and usually not for the better. Everyone wants to have the option to have a similar game experience, and to be told that you can’t because “XxChuckNorrisxX” already killed the dragon is intolerable.

So how can the game world be changed to accommodate a developing story without closing itself off to other players? Some games have taken a hack at it with instanced zones, slowly developing content that’s somewhat influenced by large numbers of gamers, and fudging the player’s viewpoint so that what they see — a quest accomplished, a demon killed — will be unique for their computer but not for others. You can also introduce a slower reboot cycle, where players can impact the game world but only for so long (like WAR’s capital city takeovers) before the reset button is hit.

A thought: wouldn’t it be cool if you could, say, destroy a building, but the game would automatically try to repair it using NPC workers over the next few hours?

6. Massive Events: gamemaster events vs. programmer events

In pen and paper RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons, the game sessions are made or broken by the skill and storytelling of the “Gamemaster” — the puppet-master who shapes and culls events to his liking and unleashes them at the players. Single-player RPGs can have preset special events programmed right in, but there’s something special about a live person creating a story for someone else to experience and adjusting to what that player does.

Online RPGs have a rare advantage here, as GMs have the capacity to do this, and as often as they wish. Some games are well-known for the GM-led story events (such as Asheron’s Call) that not only shape the world, but many times change it for good. Many modern MMOs, however, cite that the sheer volume of players and servers deem GM events as an impractical waste of manpower and resources.

That said, make some effort to do this, MMO devs. I know it’s hard, but ask any player who’s been through a GM-led event and see if they were disappointed someone tried to make the story “come alive” for them. I doubt you’ll find many complainers.

7. Others: sandbox vs. powerless

The other major advantage that MMOs have over solo RPGs is in the “massive”. Other players means other storytellers capable of spinning a yarn just as good as any a MMO story writer might whip up. The challenge here is to give the players tools to do this. Sure, in all MMOs you’ll find a die-hard subset of gamers who love to roleplay their gaming experience no matter if they have tools for it or not, but the titles that do make a special effort to let players craft stories for their friends are to be applauded.

Here’s a wacky idea: let players have tools to build basic dungeons for others to run through. Give players tools to program an NPC with a unique script that might add to the liveliness of the town. Empower players to run fun events, sponsor games and challenges, and just do weird and crazy stuff “just because”.

Other players are one of the greatest untapped resource that MMO devs have yet to utilize to tell their story. This doesn’t need to be, people.

8. Other Story Elements In MMOs

  • Instances – We’ve seen them evolve from non-existent to largely random (Anarchy Online, City of Heroes) to carefully crafted, scripted experiences. The next step is for instancing to utilize player choice in the progression, random script events to keep things changing up between runs, and dungeons that “remember” you and your past accomplishments there.
  • Journals – Quest logs and journals have long been an RPG staple, but now they need to take a leap forward to record the story of each player’s character forging through the world, so each character has a written memory of their life (a la WAR’s Tome of Knowledge). Wouldn’t it be great if you had the option to print out a copy of your character’s “life” when you finally decided to stop playing the game, so you’d always have a memento of that game experience?
  • Dynamic World – Mobs that roam and have better AI; NPCs that have lives of their own for you to observe and interact with; major events that shift the timeline forward on a regular basis. Yeah. These are good things.
  • Voice Acting – But, seriously, it better be *good*.
  • A Storyteller – I always loved how DDO used an invisible storytelling GM to narrate your progress through a dungeon. Why not take this further? Have great accomplishments in your character’s life unlock a special feature of an NPC, who will – upon request – retell the tale of your character’s heroics as a flashback cut scene (or a recording the game makes of certain moments).
  • Factions That Matter – Instead of using in-game factions as mere rep grinds for rewards, use them much the same way that player guilds do. Make the player feel like they’ve joined up with a real body of like-minded souls, which closes the player off to other factions and opens up special options, quests and story lines available only to that group. Have the faction reach out and contact the player regularly, with staple NPC “actors” who show up and interact with you and drag you along to another quest.
  • Give Combat Some Competition – I’ll leave devs with this challenge: make non-combat systems in the game just as fun and as challenging. Vanguard, for all its flaws, had a gem of an idea with its card-based diplomacy system, and we need more of that sort of thing. Make adventuring a varied experience, present challenges that are solved through other means than just whacking at them with a pointed stick. If you ever get to a point where a player tells a friend, “I’m going to pass on that dungeon run” for a different gameplay system, you have won as an RPG.


  1. […] haste to read the rest of Syp’s story. Posted in Community News, Fansite News, General News, Warhammer News | on April 28th, 2008 […]

  2. Wonderful commentary, Syp. Incorporating the attributes that make single player games great into MMOs probably requires a true visionary at the helm of the project. I’ve gotten the impression that folks like the WAR developers would love to incorporate elements like you mentioned but see their time and energy best spent focusing on specific game elements that they plan to do better than any other game (such as RvR in WAR).

    Hopefully the folks at EA Mythic or some other developer of the next generation of MMOs will find merit with the qualities that you’ve identified. I know I’d play it if they did!

    Oh, and regarding the quest box: Paul Barnett once mentioned that in WAR your actions will be noted even before you pick up a quest. Say you kill 10 wolves on your way to a quest giver only to find that he wants you to kill 10 wolves for him. In WAR he will have noticed you killed 10 wolves already and thus reward you for your efforts. It’s not exactly the story element you were looking for but it’s certainly an improvement to the quest box formula.

    On a side note, I haven’t thought about Planescape Torment in a long time. That was indeed a quality RPG game!

  3. Thanks Ted.

    Crazily enough, today City of Heroes announced that they’re developing tools to let players design their own missions/instances to be able to upload for other to play. THIS is what I’m talking about in regards to #7 – the players are a huge, nearly untapped resource that MMO devs should be using.

    We’ll see how well WAR does with telling a story, but I’ll keep my hopes high in the meanwhile.

  4. Damn this is great. I’ve wanted similar stuff in MMOs for a long time too.

    It would be cool if another quest giver hijacks your quest return, if players could build quests, and if factions mattered more, especially rivalrous factions.

    I think the common problem you note regarding persistent worlds vs dynamic impact could be mostly ameliorated. Your idea of having NPCs rebuilding the vanquished building, implying a slow reset, is along the right lines. Blend that slow reset design with factions that matter, and having player choice determine the way the world develops, and what you have is a world which appears dynamic, but is actually persistent in the long term. It’s only in the short term that quests are no longer available, but there’s an ebb and flow and one day the big bad dragon will rise again to terrorise the village.

  5. Extremely well done commentary. I do have one comment though:

    I actually don’t mind those “collect 15 camel colons” quests. They’re simple, mindless tasks where I can level and listen to some talk radio. I’m perfectly content with them.

    That being said, in every *other* game, it’s the story that really drives me to play. If a game doesn’t have an interesting story, I lose interest really fast. The vast majority of storyline quests in World of Warcraft don’t interest me one bit, minus a couple here and there. Why? You hit on some of the big points:

    1) Wall of Text. No cinematics. No voice acting.
    2) It has no lasting impact on the world.
    3) I don’t care about the NPCs I’m helping.

    But here’s another big point, which can’t really be overstated:

    * The mindless quests level you faster and an MMO, to most people, is about improving your character (i.e., leveling faster)

    So, I think we should reward people both psychologically (your point) and in terms of improving their actual character. Reward mental activity with better XP and better items, so it’s more worth their time.

  6. With your writing ability, please tell me you are rolling on an RP server?!!

  7. I… honestly haven’t given it much thought. I probably won’t — RP is not my strong suit (as I’ve said), and I’m a little too silly to stay in character for long. I’ve tried RP in the past and what I generally find is only a very small segment of an RP server actually sticks with RP; everyone else just tolerates them more there.

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